Gidon Kremer brought the latest version of his Kremerata Baltica ensemble to Prague Spring on Friday night for more than a concert. The Latvian violinist/violist made his first appearance in the festival 40 years ago, during the dark days of Communism. The program for his ninth Prague Spring performance marked that and another anniversary and offered a reminder that, in some respects, not much has changed.

Gidon Kremer © Alberts Linarts
Gidon Kremer
© Alberts Linarts

 The concert opened with a nod to both personal and political history: Luboš Fišer’s Cross, a condensed version of the Czech composer’s Requiem of 1968, the year the Prague Spring social and political liberalization movement was crushed by a Soviet-led invasion. In defiance of subsequent restrictions, Kremer performed Cross at the Prague Spring music festival during the 1970s.

For this reprise, on the 15th anniversary of the composer’s death, Kremer played violin and was joined by a single percussionist on kettledrums and chimes. The effect was haunting. Kremer struck a dramatic tone from the first notes that built to a fever pitch, with the kettledrums adding to the growing volume and intensity. He finished with a near-scream on the strings, braced by closing notes on the chimes that seemed to toll across the decades.

When he returned to the stage for Artürs Maskats’ Midnight in Riga, it was with the full 30-piece chamber ensemble. The work opened with a plaintive solo viola line (by Kremer) that introduced a pleasant series of atmospherics, one of which had a strong Spanish flavor. At the podium was Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, a 28 year-old Lithuanian conductor who has already racked up several impressive awards. She showed a light, deft touch, better at subtleties and shadings than bold strokes, with Kremer adding sweet tones throughout.

Bernstein’s Serenade seemed not to be the ensemble’s métier. The piece afforded Kremer some brilliant viola runs, especially in the “Agathon” adagio. But the overall performance offered more finesse than fire. All the details and complexity were there, with a clear delineation of the philosophical dialogue the piece presents. In particular, the exchanges between Kremer and the ensemble were expertly done. The best Bernstein, however, has an electricity that this interpretation lacked. Gražinyte-Tyla seemed more focused on providing well-balanced, even understated, support for Kremer. It was only in the latter half of the closing section that the ensemble revved up some energy and impact.

Before the group left the stage for intermission, Kremer stepped forward and spoke briefly about his early appearances at Prague Spring. “They were about more than music,” he said. “They rang another bell.” Now, he said, he was similarly moved by the “terrible events” in Ukraine. “As a way to honor all the victims there, I want to play this piece by Valentyn Silvestrov, a composer from Kiev.” It was a simple but touching serenade, equally contemplative and sad, clearly played straight from Kremer’s heart.

The second half of the concert offered entirely different and much lighter fare: The Carmen Suite by Rodion Shchedrin, originally arranged as a ballet for his wife Maya Plisetskaya. Freed of its supportive role, the ensemble blossomed into a full-blooded orchestra of surprising depth, crackling dynamics and striking range. Gražinyte-Tyla turned up the volume and sharpened the edges on the sound, showing herself to be adept at crafting colorful, richly layered music without sacrificing any clarity or balance. Even the familiar “Habanera” and “Toreador” sections sounded fresh.

The players were obviously having fun, none more so than the four percussionists arrayed across the rear wall. The arrangement features a playful array of percussive sounds, and the players reveled in creating everything from gauzy vibraphone textures to startling whip cracks. It was smart, spirited work, and Gražinyte-Tyla made a point of going upstage to shake all their hands during the applause.

An encore of Mahler’s Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony showed the ensemble equally capable of rendering quieter music with both style and substance, ending the evening on a muted note. But the politics had been sharp enough. And after four decades, there is still no one who combines political consciousness with superb musicianship quite like Gidon Kremer.